Bishop, book, and Wesley on prevenient grace

Bishop Ken Carter’s recent message about gays and lesbians and the mission of the United Methodist Church includes a good deal of teaching about United Methodism. I have been reading it and trying to discern what it teaches us about our doctrine and mission.

In the message, he gives a short summary of the three-fold nature of grace. In trying to discern the heart of his teaching, I wanted to set his summary in the context of other statements.

Here is Bishop Carter on prevenient grace:

Prevenient grace is the presence of God in all people, prior to our acceptance of faith or response to divine revelation. We believe that every person is created in God’s image,that all persons are of “sacred worth,” and surely this is common ground, in the Wesleyan tradition for ministries with all people. Our doctrine of prevenient grace is the basis for the conviction that no one is outside of God’s love and God’s saving activity.

Here is our Book of Discipline (¶102):

Prevenient Grace — We acknowledge God’s prevenient grace, the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our ‘first slight transient conviction” of having sinned against God.

The Book of Discipline paragraph above follows very closely a passage from John Wesley’s sermon “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” but that is not the only word Wesley had on the subject of, as he termed it, preventing grace. For Wesley, what many people call natural conscience, he identifies as preventing grace at work in us.

Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world. And every one, unless he be one of the small number whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron, feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience. So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.

For more of Wesley on preventing grace, see his sermons “The Scripture Way of Salvation” and “On Conscience.”

Placing these different paragraphs side-by-side, I notice in the bishop’s message an emphasis on creation as itself an aspect of preventing grace. Both the Book of Discipline and John Wesley appear to put more emphasis on grace’s activity in the fallen creation. In all three cases, though, the universal reach and need for grace is clear.

What else do you notice?


3 thoughts on “Bishop, book, and Wesley on prevenient grace

  1. I see the word” sacred” used and question it’s use .
    Sacred is associated with “Holiness” and acceptance by God.
    What exactly does sacred worth mean when applied to the topic?

    “presence of God in all people”?
    Is Gods presence the conscience or is Gods presence absent in man until baptism of the Holy Spirit of God?

    I see the words “seared conscience” and understand that reflects the exposure apathy effect or acceptance of . It is no secret persons exposed to stimuli repeatedly are less excited by the stimuli (good or bad) as exposure is increased. He shock value decreases.

    Less or more?
    Christ does not seem to portray “most” in some of the quotes we have to reference.

    “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:14, Luke 13:24

    “But no matter how we have been taught, we can expect our conscience to urge us to do what we have judged to be right, unless it has been deadened by long indulgence in things we know to be wrong 
    Robertson L. Whiteside, Commentary on Romans

    1. As brad indicated, the bishop is quoting the Book of Discipline, and connecting it to the classical doctrine of the Image of God. Much like we “say Yes to the sinner, while saying No to the sin” (to quote Bonhoeffer–or more modernly, hate the sin and love the sinner).

      It’s also worth pointing out that the “presence of God in” (or better, with) “all people” does not mean that everyone is born-again or a son/daughter of God. It means that Jesus, being lifted up on the cross, draws all people to himself (Jn 12:32)–what Methodists call prevenient or preventing grace.

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